(Forbes) -- Driving customers to the airport is a major part of Uber’s business, and it could be even more important for its planned urban air taxi business in its early days.
Now Uber has secured terminal space at a number of major airports across the U.S., striking up a partnership with a company called Signature Flight Support that handles arrivals and departures of private jet and helicopters, as well as services them.
Signature’s airport facilities will become Uber Air landing pads, and the company will run Uber’s other skyports as well, boarding and de-boarding passengers and handling recharging and maintenance of Uber Air’s electric aircraft fleet, the companies announced Wednesday.
Signature is the largest of what’s known in the aviation business as fixed base operators, with locations at over 200 airports around the world and 127 in the U.S.
Uber is hoping to launch flying taxi service in 2023 in the U.S. in Dallas and Los Angeles, and it announced Tuesday that its first international location will be Melbourne, Australia. Uber is aiming to start with seven locations each in Dallas and L.A., and two of those seven will be at airports, says Chad Cashin, an Uber Elevate business development executive.
Uber is targeting routes that would save a high volume of travelers 35 minutes or more if they take air taxis rather than ground transportation, and airport service and time-pressed business travelers will be a cornerstone. “We see in the early days airports being the most critical aspect, and remaining as such,” says Cashin.
Signature's terminals are large enough to handle the volume of customers Uber is envisioning at launch, and the company is already handling travelers in a similar fashion to how Uber Air will operate given the rise of charter services that sell individual seats on small jets, says Shawn Hall, Signature’s chief commercial officer. “The Signature lobby becomes a place to aggregate a flight, quickly bunch people together and get them on a plane, and catch them on the other end and get them sent off on their separate ways,” he says.
The difference will be greater scale and the pooling of passengers through Uber’s app. Uber is aiming to perfect that pooling with a helicopter service it unveiled last week with the chopper company Heliflite. Signature will handle ground operations for that as well. They’re starting with service from lower Manhattan to John F. Kennedy Airport, with car and helicopter legs bundled for a price of $200 to $225.
Coordinating passengers through journeys that might include 12 different vehicles, with a shared air ride in the middle, with minimal wait times, “that’s a much bigger problem than you might expect from a data and software perspective,” says Cashin. “We intend to be ready when the eVTOLs are ready.”
Some Signature locations will provide easy access to airline terminals, others will require a shuttle or car ride.
Uber says that the lower energy costs of electricity compared to aviation fuel and high passenger volumes will enable it to lower the cost of air travel by a third compared to helicopters at launch, from $9 per seat mile to $6 per seat mile.
There are almost 170 electric aircraft development programs worldwide, according to the consultancy Roland Berger, and about half of them are urban air taxis. Uber is working with Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, Bell, Pipistrel, Karem and Jaunt Air Mobility.
It’s unclear whether the development of the aircraft, as well as regulation and air traffic management technology, will progress at the speeds necessary to meet Uber’s aggressive launch time frame.